Mike

On the tenth of September 1945 in Fruita, Colorado, farmer Lloyd Olsen’s wife Clara asked him to slaughter a chicken so she could make a special dinner for her mother-in-law. Olsen chose a plump five and a half month old Wyandotte rooster and chopped off its head with an ax. While freshly killed chickens normally survive a few seconds or even minutes before dying, this chicken showed no signs of having been adversely impacted by his decapitation and soon rejoined his chicken friends, pecking at the ground as if he still had a beak. The next morning, Olsen found the chicken still alive and, profoundly moved by the chicken’s devotion to life, decided to let it live.

Olsen named the chicken Mike and began feeding him grain by hand, giving him water to drink through an eyedropper and dropping little bits of gravel down Mike’s esophagus to help him digest the grain in his gullet. Treated generously, Mike grew from two and a half to eight pounds in eighteen months of headless life. A post-mortem examination later proved that Mike’s staying power was the result of the farmer botching the execution, landing his ax a bit too high and leaving Mike with just enough brain stem to continue functioning.

Farmer Olsen recognized that Mike’s refusal to die was unique and that others would find in him the inspiration and joy that he had. With the encouragement of a promoter named Hope Wade, he set out on a national tour showing “Miracle Mike, the Headless Wonder Chicken,” to curiosity seekers willing to pay up to twenty-five cents for the experience of seeing Mike, together with a pickled chicken head in a jar. The head, however, was not Mike’s, but rather the head of another chicken. The Olsen’s cat had eaten the original. Soon Farmer Olsen was making $4,500 a month from Mike, a princely sum. Other farmers became jealous and attempted to botch executions on their own roosters to get a piece of the action. Although one rooster, Lucky, lived eleven days without a head, none could challenge Mike’s longevity.

Farmer Olsen’s relationship with Mike was one of love, not exploitation; he was drawn to Mike’s perseverance and his will to live. Mike was merely a thing, as his execution by the farmer affirms bluntly. With the failure of the act, however, the farmer recognized his own thing-like nature, his similarity to Mike and dedicated himself to keeping the chicken alive. Tragically, while on tour and staying in a motel in the Arizona desert, the friendship of headless chicken and man came to an end. Mike began to choke and after Olsen was unable to find the dropper he used to clear the chicken’s esophagus, his friend Mike died.

During his lifetime, the headless chicken proved a tremendous success with the public because he was cute. As Daniel Harris observes in Cute, Quaint, Hungry, and Romantic, cuteness is never the result of aesthetic perfection. On the contrary, it is linked to the grotesque, the malformed, and the damaged. Like Mike, stuffed animals are cute because they lack appendages to attack us with. Although most stuffed animals usually do not lose their heads”—Ugly Dolls being a notable exception”—they do invariably suffer from some form of damage that cripples them, thereby taming them and making them harmless and dependent on us. Most teddy bears have been aggressively declawed by having their paws”—and often even their forearms”—removed. Many stuffed animals have had their mouths sewn shut altogether, still others have had their teeth extracted or transformed from hard incisors to floppy bits of felt. Our desire to create pitiable”—and therefore lovable”—creatures is so great that we insist on reshaping living creatures as well, creating freakish genetically altered pets such as the tiny, short-lived Chihuahua, the tailless Manx cat or the Tennessee Fainting Goat, a bug-eyed ruminant bred to possess myatonia, a genetic heart condition that forces it to drop, immobile, to the ground when startled. Naturally, fainting goats are more frequently and deliberately startled than any other breed of goat. Like Mike, these maimed creatures cannot defend themselves or exist on their own and inspire pity, making us desire to hug and hold them.

In addition to his being cute, Mike also exemplifies our complicated relationship with animals and things. This is made clear by Georges Bataille in his 1948 book, Theory of Religion, written only a few short years after Mike’s death. The animal, Bataille explains, lives in immanence, a religious and philosophical state where being and spirit exist entirely at one with and within the world. Thus, when one animal eats another, the eater does not affirm its difference from the eaten. Even if one animal has proved itself more powerful than the other, Bataille writes, there is “never anything between them except that quantitative difference. The lion is not the king of the beasts: in the movement of the waters he is only a higher wave overturning the other, weaker ones.” For men, however, there is nothing more foreign than this state of animality. We cannot imagine this world of immanence, Bataille explains. Our world is literally constituted by our difference from it, by the fact that we imagine ourselves not as objects but as subjects. If, as in Zen Buddhism, we contemplate being One with the world, we do so with the full knowledge that we are not One with it. This arises, Bataille explains, because we produce tools and plan for the future. In contrast, animals exist only at the level of consumption, at the moment. When we actively think of production, however, we anticipate the future and that tears us out of the plane of immanence. Production is in view of the future. As a consequence, we begin to perceive the world—animal, thing, tool, other beings, even other people—as objects.

The animal, Bataille writes, “has lost its status as man’s fellow creature.” An animal no longer exists for itself, but also in order that it may be domesticated or killed. Roasted, grilled, boiled, cut into sushi, fricasseed, or poached, the animal becomes a thing. Unlike the first men, we do not merely eat animals, we transform them and prepare them prior to ingestion. With garnish, sauces, condiments, and spices we turn them into sensuous and aesthetic objects, and, in doing so, affirm that the animal is an object from the start. Our own bodies are different, posing problems for us when we die. Flesh confirms our animal-like nature, but unlike animals, we are also filled with spirit, and are therefore capable of transcending to the divine realm. Thus, when a human dies, we revere its body, treating it as more godlike than ever, the emptiness of the corpse being an affirmation of spirit. This fact, Bataille explains, is why ancient cultures built pyramids and spent so much time on mummies. The spirit’s departure from the corpse and the ritual put into its passing, proves that, at the very least, man is not animal.

As with Hegel’s master-slave dialectic, however, to subordinate is to alter oneself. By subjugating nature, Bataille explains, we tie ourselves to a subjugated nature. Bataille suggests that in producing food for others, the farmer himself runs the danger of losing his identity by being confused with the process of food production itself. This is why, Bataille continues, ancient man would sacrifice the first fruits of the harvest or a head of livestock. The destruction proves that we do not depend on the victim. The act of “unintelligible caprice” destroys the utility aspect of the victim”—who would be killed anyway, but instead of being put to productive ends is instead wasted. Sacrifice undoes the relation of dependence and, as a consequence, the sacrificer turns the victim into part of the divine world, thereby bringing it into the human realm, which is suffused with the divine. Perversely, in making the killing utterly wanton, the sacrifice redresses the wrong of killing the animal. Sacrifice restores the animal to a world of spirit from which we tore it by making it useful in the first place.

Sacrifices, Bataille points out, are made at festivals, sites of unfettered consumption where the arts come together. to temporarily undo any possibility of production and simulate the lost state of immanence. But the bacchanalian nature of festival exists only within defined limits and the blurring of distance is merely temporary. As society developed, the sacrifice itself was codified, replaced by symbolic things with merely ritual meaning. For a time, as the West expanded to dominate the globe, its need for expansion ensured that production of these goods would still be subordinated to a greater military whole. But by the time Western society had reached the limits of the Earth, production had already become a thing in itself, directed toward the material betterment of human life. This, Bataille posits, initiated the reign of autonomous things, the world of industry. Seeing the world solely in terms of production and, unable to rise above it, humanity became thing-like as well, leading Georg Lukács to observe and describe the phenomenon of humans and human relations becoming “reified.”

But Bataille writes, the world of production was too successful. Already by in his day, during the brief hours in which Mike walked the Earth, Bataille sensed that production had reached the point of excess beyond which it could not go. In its stead rises a world dominated once again by consumption, excess, and waste. Today, production has fled the developed world and is strangling the planet with its wild proliferation of meaningless objects. As Jean Baudrillard observes, at the differing scales of our bodies, national economies, and the world, “Lack isn’t the real problem, it is surplus. And surplus, as you know, you can’t get rid of it.” The world is filled with the obese. This pathological excess of obesity, a proliferation of bodily flesh and a ceaseless proliferation of objects, Baudrillard concludes is, more than anything, a form of disappearance. Consumption becomes an end in itself, detrimental to life instead of sustaining it, erasing all possible meaning in the world around us.

What next, then? There are signs suggesting that the order of things is finally emerging from its long silence. The International Telecommunication Union predicts that soon the biggest users of the Internet will be things. Objects will report about themselves, but also speak to each other. We will report to the objects as they become ever more sentient. Evidence of this can be seen in the child’s toy Furby, which, like Mike has no head and needs feeding and love in order to grow. Our dream has always been to return to the state of immanence, the world of things that we lost so long ago. Soon we may be able to do so, not by reducing ourselves, but by giving ourselves up to serving the world of objects in perpetuity.